New Air Jordan 3 honors the designer who saved Nike

The shoe that saved Nike (1:00)

ESPN senior sneakerhead Nick DePaula catches up with Tinker Hatfield, who tells a story about designing the "Air Jordan 3" with Michael Jordan and its greater impact on the brand. (1:00)

As Tinker Hatfield remembers it, had his initial presentation of the Air Jordan 3 to Michael Jordan gone awry back in 1987, Nike and Jordan Brand might not exist as we know them today.

"Michael really did want to leave us at the time," said the legendary Nike designer, who is credited with creating some of the most iconic Jordan sneakers.

Instead of bolting for Adidas, Jordan embraced the Air Jordan 3, marking a turning point in the relationship between the company and its most high-profile star. Jordan Brand is honoring the shoe's 30th anniversary this weekend by launching a pair based on one of Hatfield's earliest sketches of what would become the third shoe in Jordan's signature line.

Unlike most signature sneakers, which are planned out more than a year in advance, the Jordan 3 came to life out of a chaotic, compressed timeline. Peter Moore, the designer of the first two Air Jordan models, had abruptly left Nike for Adidas in 1987. Just before leaving, he handed off the ongoing Air Jordan project on a quick-turn timeline to Hatfield, who had only just begun designing sneakers for the brand.

While he has since theorized that the timeline and handoff was part of Moore's grand plan to "sabotage" the Jordan line and take him to Adidas, Hatfield had no time to stress. Nike was scheduled to present a third Air Jordan sample to the Bulls star in a matter of weeks.

"I knew Michael wasn't very happy with the Air Jordan 2," Hatfield said.

Jordan had been sidelined for 64 games the prior season after breaking his left foot in the Air Jordan 1. While he averaged a career high 37.1 points per game in the second Air Jordan, the colors were tame, as the brand launched low and high cuts in only two colors each -- a white-and-red look, and a white, black and red edition. He also felt the shoe was stiff, as its rich Italian leathers and firm bottom didn't break in right away on the court.

Once the official Air Jordan 3 meeting was set to begin, Jordan was nowhere to be found. Legend goes that he was instead out golfing, indifferent to meeting with Nike execs, and made the meeting only once his father, James, dragged him off the course.

"He was not in a great mood," Hatfield said. "Phil Knight was in the room, and Michael came in after keeping him waiting for four hours."

Hatfield -- who was originally hired at Nike in the early 1980s to be a campus architect for the company's headquarters-expansion plan -- saw his chance to work with Jordan as a way to involve him in the process like no other athlete had been before.

Before the presentation, he and Nike sports marketing exec Howard White had flown to Chicago to spend a day with the then-24-year-old Jordan, meeting him at his condo and shadowing along for an appointment he had with a nearby suit designer.

"It was amazing to watch him with these suit-makers," said Hatfield. "He was picking out materials, and he literally said, 'I don't like that lapel. What can we do that's different?' He was very involved in the process."

That experience led Hatfield to believe that Jordan could provide serious input on the design of his third shoe.

"[Jordan] had a really good sense of style," Hatfield said. "I don't think anybody in the business had quite grasped that there were athletes who were capable of being true collaborators."

Hatfield dug through new materials booklets, eyeing exotic textures entirely new to the basketball-shoe world while looking for a more broken-in and rich tumbled leather for the upper. He also knew Jordan would likely prefer a mid-cut shoe, offering up a combination of more mobility and protection.

After a four-hour wait -- keep in mind, Nike's founder waited around for no one -- the Air Jordan 3 meeting was underway.

"I'm glad you finally made it," Knight said firmly. "All right, Tinker, take it over."

"Show me what you got," Jordan said.

After walking Jordan through his many inspirations -- the luxurious, elephant-skin texture that would accent the shoe's toe and heel, and the return of a black colorway that had sparked the industry and league on the first Air Jordan -- Hatfield pulled the sample out. The tongue's "Jumpman" logo was the defining callout, the first time it had been incorporated on an Air Jordan shoe.

"When I picked the shoe up, Michael grabbed it from me and started looking at it," Hatfield said. "He was in a bad mood, and then 20 minutes later, he had the shoe in his hands and his love of design and his love of the process that we had gone through, it all came back to him."

Hatfield's decision to lead with the Jumpman logo set the design direction of the series and erased Jordan's grumpiness and uneasiness at the time. Thirty years later, the logo has become the defining symbol of one of the most impactful brands in footwear, tallying more than $3 billion in sales per year.

"That was a turning point," Hatfield said. "At the very last moment, I chose to leave the Swoosh off and go with the Jumpman. It was an argument with some people in marketing at the time, so I threw them a bone and put Nike on the back. No one knew. I had made the call last minute."

That decision was part of Hatfield's desire to frame the Air Jordan 3 around Jordan as an icon worthy of his own brand, something that would become a reality a decade later.

"Even though I didn't know him that well, I thought it would be really great to talk to MJ about having his own brand," he said. "But I was conflicted; I thought the Swoosh looked good on the shoe. It was designed to have a Swoosh -- that's why it works [now]; there's a good place for it. On the other hand, I had this Jumpman logo and knew it would be right for the shoe."

Building off of Jordan's dominant season on the court, Nike packaged Hatfield's design with a "Mars Blackmon" ad campaign featuring director Spike Lee that became an instant classic. The company also put the Jumpman logo on track suits featuring the elephant-print texture, and the Air Jordan line was off and running to ever greater heights.

The idea of Jordan -- who had wanted to sign with Adidas in 1984 and was prepared to do so again in 1989 -- leaving Nike was suddenly a distant memory. Knight often says the Jordan 3 "saved Nike," ending the doomsday scenario of Jordan leaving.

"I love it that Phil Knight thinks I saved Nike," Hatfield said.

Years later, Hatfield pulled Jordan aside during one of their many travels together. He had to find out for himself if his Air Jordan 3 presentation in late 1987 had truly kept Jordan from fleeing to Adidas and staying with Nike.

"He said, 'That was part of it, but also, my dad really read me the riot act in the parking lot afterwards,'" Hatfield said, with a laugh.

"Don't you ever disrespect Mr. Knight that way again," the elder Jordan had scolded.

"His dad gave him good advice about staying with Nike instead of leaving," Hatfield said. "After Michael told me that story, I said, 'Dude! Do not repeat that to Mr. Knight, because he thinks I'm the guy that really saved Nike.'"